Narrative Influences in Bad Girls
Helen (to Stubberfield): I have a duty of care to
Nikki (to Helen): When I thought I'd pissed you off
I didn't know how I could live.
NARRATIVEThere are a number of ways to explore the fact
that Nikki and Helen often communicate at cross-purposes and express
themselves differently, have very different ethical approaches to
problems, but such approaches don't examine their story at a
Narrowly defined, 'narrative' simply means
the story itself, the events which constitute it. I'm aiming at a
broader definition here: to consider how the story is told. What is
the structure underlying the story of Helen; Helen and Nikki; and to
a lesser extent, all those who cross paths with them and effect that
primary storyline in series 1-3 of Bad Girls? What
kind of story is this? Where does it come from? Does it have
antecedents, literary precursors that can help us understand it
better, or in other ways?
I. Modern Story Elements
The psychological element is just one component of the
Helen/Nikki story: it would be an unusual story these days without
major components which could be characterized as 'psychological'.
It's the aspect most familiar to a modern audience, and most
frequently analyzed—which is also natural given the story's enormous
appeal: what did Helen mean when she said this; what was Nikki
There are other (mainly modern) ways of
characterizing the Helen/Nikki story besides psychological
(character-study): as a coming-out story, for example; a romance,
etc. Bad Girls directly references other literary sources
extensively throughout series 1-3, and a thorough analysis would
certainly have to take those references into consideration:
intertexutal exchanges about works by Dickens, Shakespeare, and
Eliot all require close attention. From the first moments of the
first episode, Bad Girls mixed presentational genres; but
though some elements of Bad Girls are characteristic of the
gothic, for example, the show is not itself gothic.
components are all pieces of the structure, but not the framework.
What specific narrative models does the Helen/Nikki story employ? In
considering S3 especially, there are many different levels of
disconnect between Nikki and Helen. The key is Helen and her
internal journey: to me it seems a large part of the narrative
regarding this character is basically psychological (concerned with
changes in the character's inner life).
A lot of what goes
wrong in S3 is that Helen and Nikki aren't reading each other
accurately or well. They think they have an Understanding, but many
aspects of that understanding are not actually discussed: when
things go sideways they can't depend on their assumptions, the
cracks start showing. The unspoken communication that's in part
drawn them together is, after all, unspoken; some sort of imagined
psychic connection alone doesn't carry people through the rough
spots. They have to be able to talk to each other—something neither
character is expert in, it's definitely a big area they'll need to
work on in their life after Larkhall. As I hope to make clear,
however, they're not only misreading each other because of poor
The problem with the paradigm of coming
out is that it is a model: it implies there are certain basic
steps that happen in a certain order (and tends to impose those
steps on stories concerned with such subject matter, as evidenced by
the last 20 years of gay and lesbian cinema). Although there's some
truth to the coming-out paradigm and part of Helen's story can be
viewed from that angle, Shed, the writers and production company
behind Bad Girls, is careful to avoid embracing it as "the"
single, overriding theme for the story they're telling: the story of
Helen and Nikki is bigger than that, it's about a great deal
(Didi Herman has explored some of the ways Helen's
story, especially in its resolution, diverges from a more
traditional 'coming-out' paradigm in her excellent 'Bad Girls
Changed My Life' (see Bibliography for full information), and I
agree with her assertion this is one reason Shed scripted Helen's "I
want a woman" declaration as they did: it does not conform to the
expected progression, as would some variation on 'I love you Nikki'
or 'I want to be with you' or 'I'm a lesbian and I can't live
without you'—it's Nikki who's the excessive romantic, Nikki who
voices such lines throughout. Any of those declarations (in addition
to being horribly cliché) would wrap the story up with a bow, too
neatly, and diminish its impact on other levels; all evidence
(interviews with Shed etc) indicates they were acutely aware of this
issue and wrestled with it til they felt they had what they
wanted—which was something rather different).
One of the
things the paradigm of coming out obscures is that real life doesn't
happen (or necessarily feel) in 'order', it's a messy clutter of
overlapping emotions and events—and this story's very smart about
that as well, which is one of the reasons the presentation around
Helen is so fittingly complex in series 3. Helen's got a major
overhaul that needs to take place—about how she thinks of herself,
how she sees herself in the world; difficult as it might have been
for us, the audience, to view and in some places, interpret, that's
basically an internal process. It has to take place alone, mainly
off-screen—it's true to her story (and her character) that it
...Which is why the Victorian model Shed's writers and producers
seem to fall back on in places, especially with the character of
Helen Stewart, is so interesting: as used in Bad Girls it's
more novelistic than cinematic. It's narrative in essence: it
concerns the Inner Life of our principal. (Part of a distinctly
modern progression from the kind of novels that came before that
When Helen approaches Nikki
for assistance with schizophrenic inmate Pam Jolly, for example,
she's making a number of assumptions; one is that she and Nikki
share the same basic goal of trying to better life for women in the
prison (which aim she, of necessity, assumes supersedes any personal
friction on account of the unclear status of their relationship; and
despite that the two often disagree on how to go about meeting that
goal in any given situation). Most of all, Helen is acting here very
much like a 19th century Victorian heroine: she's going to her
partner as helpmeet, with the aim of doing good works. Having a
"duty of care to these women" is something Helen takes very
In using this Victorian background echo to draw
more layers to Helen's story, I think Shed was, basically, trying to
bring a secondary novel to screen. An imaginary novel: the
fascinating thing to me about this idea is that this is a novel that
literally doesn't exist. (Just as the story told in
Fingersmith, as narrative subversion of traditional
heterosexual tropes, was impossible to imagine until Sarah Waters
gave it to us. We can appreciate Fingersmith as we're reading
it, but we can only stand back and admire its real scope when we've
finished.) So here, too. This is hugely ambitious of Shed, in my
view—to try to convey a character working through all of these
emotions and nuances behind the scenes, as it were, with this
particular set of conventions. The Victorian model is another lens
through which we may view series 3, another type of narrative
underlying certain plot points that makes it
So if there is an historic narrative
model for Helen's journey especially in series 3, I am suggesting
that—in places—it has Victorian undertones. But though Nikki reads a
lot of Victorian literature, her behavior and character, unlike
Helen's, doesn't fit that model in a directly comparable way: I was
so used to pairing the two characters I couldn't reconcile that
disparity. I began wondering whether part of what's going on
mightn't be that Helen and Nikki are carrying on two concurrent
narratives—thus the disconnect—in two very different
When listening to the language I'd always used
internally to describe Nikki and her behavior (in considering her
best characteristics), I realized there was something very
old-fashioned about it: gallant; courtly; knightly. (Or,
honorable, for a less gender-specific
identification.) It seemed possible the tradition associated with
Nikki's character was quite a bit older: that of the chivalric
romance, courtly love. (Nikki does fall rather short on the jealousy
front—however, jealousy is, however ironically, a critical if
much-debated feature of this tradition: it
Before continuing it's important to note:
I don't think it is solely 'Helen's' narrative that has some roots
in Victorian tradition, and I hope to make equally clear I don't
believe Nikki's narrative tradition should be paired with or
ascribed solely to that of courtly love. In short: I think Shed's
text swaps these literary influences for each character according to
the needs of the story. And not continuously or consistently
throughout. These borrowings are part of the story's foundation, not
the whole structure: the whole structure is Shed's original story as
told through series 1-3 of Bad Girls, specifically, Nikki and
Helen's romance, and Helen's journey, both alone and through that
relationship. Features of each of these traditions inform the other:
aspects of Helen's story are expressed through the courtly love
romance, and aspects of Nikki's story borrow from Victorian origins
A unified work of art like series 1-3 of Bad
Girls isn't set up with a template where writers say, This
character must do thus-and-such because that's the tradition they
originate in. That's backwards. They borrow little pieces from
different places as it fits, often perhaps not entirely consciously,
and only as it serves the story. So this isn't some suit of armor I
want to saddle the characters with (people were smaller in the
middle ages, I don't think the armor would fit our Nikki anyhow);
just background that might help in understanding their story or
adding shades of meaning.
III. Courtly Love
Barbara Tuchman, from A Distant Mirror:
chivalric love affair moved from worship through declaration of
passionate devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady, renewed wooing
with oaths of eternal fealty, moans of approaching death from
unsatisfied desire, heroic deeds of valor which won the lady's heart
by prowess, [very rarely] consummation of the secret love, followed
by endless adventures and subterfuges to a tragic denouement....
It remained artificial, a literary convention, a fantasy... more for
purposes of discussion than for every day practice." [italics
Could a broad summary of this romance's progression be
much more perfect?
To address the question of tragedy first,
since this angle is the only one which appears not to fit the series
3 ending: most of us, if we're watching for lesbian storylines at
all, have suffered through a long, tedious 'tradition' of just this
when it comes to lesbian characters in media. Suicide, murder,
madness, obsession, addiction, general misery, ad nauseum. We all
know the drill—it's been practically obligatory til the last twenty
years or so. Tragedy was more than suggested at the end of series
2/beginning of series 3: it was the set-up for all that followed—and
more than one viewer could barely see a way round it; as is the
nature of tragedy, some disastrous ending to the couple's future
felt almost inevitable. Tragedy, in other words (like the Romeo and
Juliet motif the show also plays with) is the problem the story sets
itself—then goes about solving. This is lesbian revisioning on a
very grand scale.
The artifice of the courtly love romance
is, of course, echoed in the fact that we're discussing another
fictional story, that of Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade, as viewed
through this lens. Shed's achievement was to realize a modern-day,
lesbian version of this story, and part of its attraction for
viewers surely can be found in the emotional credibility of that
To work with this idea more formally it
would be important to distinguish the traditions of courtly
narrative as practiced in British idiom (rather than French or
German, say); see how, where, in what ways they might apply. It
would be necessary to take care not to graft or superimpose extra
material onto the show: there's no sense trying to force a
centuries-old model onto something if it's not appropriate. This is
a very broad idea, it's not going to be a perfect fit to the last
For example, setting up
specific parallels with other, third-party characters feels pushed.
I can't see squeezing Thomas in as the Arthur figure, or Fenner
as... who, Mordred? Such ideas might appear superficially tempting
but in the case of Fenner, arguably his storyline simply doesn't
intersect Helen and Nikki's within this particular tradition: his
function is much closer to that of a prototypical Victorian
villain. I could be mistaken,
but see the excerpt from quoted materials following for Ross's very
interesting idea about the 'custom of the castle'; it makes for an
extremely suggestive tie-in to both Nikki's character—and that of Larkhall
So no, Nikki doesn't sit around
reading Tristan and Isolde, or Arthur. Given her background, reading
medieval poetry or even Malory isn't going to play. This is what I
mean by swapping: Nikki, not Helen, reads the Victorians. She also
reads Helen, of course—not always accurately, but with close
attention and passion—and it's been suggested her appreciation of
both amplifies her understanding of each.
of Malory: how do we, in a modern time-frame, mainly come by our
acquaintance with such stories? No one reads most of them in the original any more:
they read or view them as adapted and interpreted... through the
To the extent Nikki's narrative intersects the courtly love
paradigm, it's through the Victorians: that's the historical locus
where her character's story overlaps Helen's. As for Helen, she's
not a careerist: she's a crusader. It's another call back to an
ideological penchant both women share that stretches across both the
medieval and Victorian eras—which is brought up to date with their
very modern story and its struggles. They are literally situated in
a location which spans all three time-frames: Larkhall, a medieval
building that's been modernized to Victorian standards and houses a
A final thought regarding narrative
traditions being exchanged between these characters as suits the
story: Nikki's tradition may have echoes in that of the gallant
knight-gentil (in this case imprisoned for rescuing her lover from
certain peril)... but she's also the princess stuck in the
castle—who, in turn, needs rescuing. Which makes Helen, at least
part of the time, the knight. It's yet
another level on which the flexibility and exchange of roles, the
mutuality of Helen and Nikki's deeds on each other's behalf, makes
the story work so well. That these characters achieve such fluidity
in their roles—and are both women—is hardly incidental.
Gender-swapping around roles doesn't happen easily in any culture
where prescribed roles are more rigidly associated with opposite-sex
pairings. This story doesn't just work brilliantly because it
'happens' to be about two women: it works to its very core
because it's two women.
When I let go the
idea that Helen and Nikki somehow 'had' to be contained within the
same narrative tradition (nothing about their storylines or
characters really suggests that in the first place) just because
they shared the same narrative structure—and put it together with
their constant frictions around how to effect change, what the right
thing to do is in a given situation, the idea that they literally
(as does everyone) use different languages to express themselves—it
became clear another possibility existed: they weren't using
the same language (or, to put it another way, they're speaking the
same mother tongue, but with very different accents). As characters,
they express themselves through (and originate in) different
Ross, Charles. The Custom of the
Castle: From Malory to Macbeth
Berkeley: Univ of California
...Amid the welter of moral bewilderments that are
given fantastic or marvelous form in chivalric romance (giants,
dragons, sorcerers, love, illusions, and apparitions), one motif
emerges as normative: the custom of the castle—in purely narrative
terms, the moment when a knight comes upon a castle and confronts a
ritual or tradition or institutional control presided over by some
villain—which may be read as a meditation on the weight of custom or
local practice in resolving problems of moral knowledge. Foul
customs raise the problem of a knight's need to know what is morally
correct before he can act in a way that is right. But, as Fredric
Jameson remarks, the traditional heroes of Western romance "show a
naiveté and bewilderment" that makes them marginal to the ethical
conflicts that romances seek to resolve. Romance knights do not
typically act in the moral sense; they react.
created by a "vile custom," then, is the specific form in which
romance poses its problem of knowledge, providing a strong generic
continuity from Chrétien to Malory and Shakespeare. The problem as
it occurs in narrative terms is a variant of the same problem
addressed by Socrates in the Gorgias and by Montaigne. First, in any
human community, great weight must be given to custom and tradition
in deciding matters of right and wrong, even when these may seem
pointless on "rational" grounds. But second, to defer to the past is
to admit the possibility that various kinds of behavior recognized
to be wrong or repugnant by other canons of moral judgment
(religion, reason, nature) may be sanctioned by the custom of some
Thanks to JT for the idea of Nikki's reading tastes paralleling her
feelings for Helen.
I am also playing with the idea that the Victorians played with the
idea of the gentil knight ("preux chevalier"). See Wodehouse, for
example. (another author referenced indirectly in the show
offers an extremely brief overview of the Victorian novel.
brief summary of some differences between the Victorian &
website by Debora B. Schwartz offers an excellent general
overview on courtly love, origins of the romance narrative, and
Capellanus' 12th-century Rules of Courtly Love, satirizing
the genre (excerpted below).
summary, recapping some of the same material but with a slightly
Excerpt below is from Capellanus' book, The Art of Courtly
[NB: Remember: it's satire. The urge to apply it to the show (or
one's own life) is nearly irresistible, regardless, as satire
wouldn't work if it weren't in part truthful, to underscore
Schwartz's point that "you can't satirize something that does not
De Arte Honeste Amandi [The Art of Courtly Love], Book Two: On
the Rules of Love
1. Marriage is no real excuse for not
2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
3. No one can be
bound by a double love.
4. It is well known that love is always
increasing or decreasing.
5. That which a lover takes against his
will of his beloved has no relish.
6. Boys do not love until they
arrive at the age of maturity.
7. When one lover dies, a
widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
8. No one
should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of
10. Love is always a stranger in the home of
11. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should
be ashamed to seek to marry.
12. A true lover does not desire to
embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
13. When made public
love rarely endures.
14. The easy attainment of love makes it of
little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart
17. A new love puts to flight an old one.
character alone makes any man worthy of love.
19. If love
diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
20. A man in
love is always apprehensive.
21. Real jealousy always increases
the feeling of love.
22. Jealousy, and therefore love, are
increased when one suspects his beloved.
23. He whom the thought
of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
24. Every act of a
lover ends with in the thought of his beloved.
25. A true lover
considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his
26. Love can deny nothing to love.
27. A lover can
never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
28. A slight
presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
29. A man who
is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
30. A true
lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the
thought of his beloved.
31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved
by two men or one man by two women.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Trans. &
ed. by John Jay Parry, NY: Columbia Univ Press, 1989, p.